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Sunday, 8 March, 1998, 10:58 GMT
BSE: a national crisis
Scientists have found a clinical link between BSE (above) and CJD
Scientists have found a clinical link between the affects on the brain of BSE (above) and CJD
The history of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) is short but dramatic. It involves the deaths and culling of hundreds of thousands of cattle, a worldwide beef ban and suspected links with the equivalent human disease.

BSE was first identified in November 1986 on a farm in Kent in south-east England after cattle were observed losing their sense of balance. The disease then became known as Mad Cow Disease.

Scientists confirmed the existence of BSE in 1986
The disease cannot be diagnosed in live animals other than by monitoring for abnormal behaviour. The combination of a long incubation period and a lack of diagnostic tests makes the disease difficult to detect and, therefore, hard to control.

Human food chain

In response to concern that BSE-infected meat might be entering the human food chain, the UK Government established a committee of experts under the chairmanship of Sir Richard Southwood in April 1988.

The scientists concluded that BSE had probably been transmitted to cattle following a change in farming practices in the late 1970s and early 1980s when the rules covering the preparation of animal feed containing animal remnants were changed.

Following the completion of the Southwood report, the government introduced regulations in July under the BSE Order 1988, banning the feeding of protein derived from ruminants to cattle and other ruminant animals.

This prohibition was not extended to non-ruminant animals such as pigs and chickens until March 1996. In addition, the slaughter and destruction of cattle suspected of having BSE was made compulsory from August 1988.

More than 100,000 cattle have been culled
In March 1997, an additional cull of about 100,000 cattle at increased risk of developing BSE began. Farmers were offered compensation for these cattle. 'Specified offal' was banned for human consumption from November 1989.

There have been more than 170,000 cases of BSE recorded at British farms up to the end of January 1998. The number of cases has declined in the last few years - 14,299 BSE cases were reported in 1995, compared to 8,010 cases in 1996.

Human form of BSE

In October 1994, the then Chief Medical Officer, Sir Kenneth Calman, said that there was no link between BSE and Creutzfeld-Jacob's Disease, a fatal neurological disease found in humans, which has similarities to the bovine disease.

But on March 20 1996, the Health Secretary, Stephen Dorrell, and the Agriculture Minister, Douglas Hogg, told the Commons that the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee (SEAC) had established a probable link between BSE and a new variant of CJD.

It emerged in 1997 that a young woman who had been a vegetarian for 12 years had contracted the new strain of CJD.

Relatives of CJD victims then signed an open letter in which they called for a public judicial inquiry into BSE.

The number of deaths from new variant CJD in the UK up to the end of January 1998 stood at 23.

Public hysteria

The announcement of the link prompted growing public and political hysteria, which resulted in the EU Agriculture Commissioner, Franz Fischler, issuing a ban on all exports of British beef on March 25, 1996.

On April 16, 1996, Douglas Hogg announced that all animals aged over 30 months at the time of slaughter would be destroyed rather than be allowed to enter the human food chain.

The government lobbied hard to have the EU ban lifted and resorted briefly to a policy of non co-operation on EU business.

This involved UK ministers refusing to agree EU measures, bringing much of the work of the union to a grinding halt.

The pressure paid off and the policy of non co-operation was ended following an agreement at the EU summit in Florence in June 1996.

Under the agreement, additional measures were agreed to by the UK Government, including an extension of the planned cattle cull, in exchange for a commitment that there would be a phased lifting of the ban as these measures were implemented.

The UK Government initially expressed the hope that the ban would begin to be lifted in November 1996 but that hope was not realised.

Links to more BSE stories are at the foot of the page.

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Links to more BSE stories

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